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OHL 20 in 20 Summer Spotlight: Spirit load up on Michigan grown talent

 

Dave Drinkill has been a busy man this summer.

Securing commitments from top 2017 OHL Priority Selection acquisitions Nicholas Porco, Aidan Prueter and Duncan Penman in relatively short order, Drinkill then set his sights on 2016 first round, fourth overall pick Blade Jenkins of nearby Jackson, Mich.

The 17-year-old spent last season with the U.S. National Development Program and had been highly sought after by college hockey programs but announced on May 4th that he’d be joining the Spirit for the 2017-18 season.

Drinkill, now entering his third-year as general manager, took a calculated risk by selecting the American centreman fourth overall last April, adding Jenkins to the depth chart is something he’s excited about.

“He’s ready and eager to play in the OHL,” he said. “His year at the U.S. Development Program included some ups and downs, but he got bigger and stronger through that process and I think that prepared him for the physical challenges that this league will present a young player.

“Blade is highly touted and we couldn’t be happier to add him to our developing core of young forwards.”

The Spirit laid the groundwork for the recruitment of Jenkins midway through last season when 17-year-old Dexter, Mich. native D.J. Busdeker joined the club. An undrafted free agent, Busdeker had a strong second half to his rookie season, posting seven goals, seven assists and 14 points over 39 contests.

Growing up as fierce rivals, Busdeker and Jenkins gradually formed a close friendship during their time playing together with the Compuware AAA Hockey Program and will have the opportunity to line up alongside one another in the OHL this fall.

“No doubt, D.J. certainly helped in our efforts to bring Blade Jenkins to Saginaw, but he’s a huge part of what we’re doing here,” Drinkill noted. “We fell in love with D.J.’s game when we scouted Blade and, from what we saw of him in the second half of the season last year, we’re really excited about the kind of player he is.”

For Jenkins, the chance to play OHL hockey within two hours of his family in Jackson presents a great opportunity.

“It’ll be very special to have my parents up in the stands every night,” he said. “I’m very lucky to have the chance to play in front of my friends and family. I’ve heard nothing but good things about playing in Saginaw. The fans here are really supportive and it’s a great environment to play in.”

Just 20 minutes north of Jackson lies Pleasant Lake, the home of newly signed Spirit defenceman Caleb Everett, another of Drinkill’s secured offseason commitments.

Everett, who was chosen by the Spirit in the sixth round (106th overall) of the 2016 OHL Priority Selection, spent last season with Compuware’s U16 program while also getting a cup of coffee with the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks at season’s end.

The 6-foot-2, 175Ib. right-shot defenceman is a close friend of Jenkins’ as a result of their time together at the TPH Center of Excellence in Detroit.

“It’s great to be reunited with Blade and to have a chance to play in a great program,” said Everett following his signing with the Spirit. “I think we’re going to have a good group of guys here and I’m looking forward to helping make good things happen.”

With new recruits joining the Spirit this fall, team ownership has gone above and beyond to equip players with everything they need to be successful student athletes.

“Our ownership has made a huge investment to our dressing room, adding a big addition with a full theatre room, a lounge for our players and a kitchenette while re-doing our whole locker room and weight room in the process,” reported Drinkill. “We want to give our players everything they need to be the best they can be and we’re confident that they’re going to come and put in the work to make that happen.”

With the five aforementioned newly recruited prospects in addition to promising young talent in Detroit Red Wings prospect Brady Gilmour and sophomore forwards Damien Giroux and Max Grondin, the Spirit have a solid base upon which to build after missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2005 last spring.

Drinkill’s summer work hasn’t been limited to player recruitment though.

The Spirit announced on July 25th that head coach Spencer Carbery would be taking an assistant coaching position in the American Hockey League, later revealed to be a place on the bench with the Providence Bruins. Just a week later, assistant coach and assistant general manager John Kisil, the club’s longest tenured member on the coaching staff, announced that he’d accepted a scouting position in the National Hockey League.

After an extensive search, Drinkill announced this past week that former Kitchener Rangers head coach Troy Smith, an OHL graduate with Michigan roots from his days as a defenceman with the Plymouth Whalers (1995-99), will be the eighth head coach in Spirit franchise history.

“Troy brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to our staff, and the young group of talented players we have assembled the past few seasons,” said Drinkill. “I’m excited to work with him as we continue to build and develop through the draft and stay focused on our current path.”

Smith will have an eager young group to work with when camp opens later this month at the Dow Event Center including three of Michigan’s top young prospects playing right in their own backyard.

Over 20 days in August ontariohockeyleague.com will shine a summer spotlight on storylines from all 20 OHL clubs.  See more from the OHL 20 in 20 series.

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